Most written communication is sent via text or email these days. However, when the writer wishes to remain anonymous, handwritten letters and notes – sent via snail mail or hand-delivered, are often the preferred choice. Old fashioned handwriting, it is believed, lends itself to disguise and the concealment of identity and origin.
I am able to provide an opinion on the most likely author (among a pool of suspects) of anonymous letters or threatening mail. The main question that has to be answered is “who wrote it?”. Categories of anonymous handwriting include:
- Anonymous messages that are criminal in nature. These would include handwritten messages containing any kind of threatening content: death threats, threats to reputation or bomb threats. Also, ransom notes, letters of extortion or any written material that forms part of the chain of evidence in a criminal investigation.
- Vicious, persistent and disturbing letters or notes. In these cases a victim becomes the target of a continuous campaign of harassment in the form of hate mail. Very often such letters are in disguised handwriting. Unpleasant sexual innuendo is not unusual in these cases.
- Mischievous notes and drawings created by children and usually disseminated at school, either to fellow pupils, or to teachers. Anonymous letters of complaint against authority figures also fall into this category.
- Graffiti. Messages written or spray-painted onto walls or fixed surfaces. (Not the same as gangster graffiti and street art.)
The scientific procedure followed in order to establish authorship of anonymous handwriting is a comparative one. The client is requested to provide the following:
- The complete original notes, letters or writing.
- If the offensive message was not written on paper, but on a wall or other surface, a high-resolution photograph can be submitted.
- Handwriting samples from suspects. A short list of potential suspects is often possible when the offensive writing has occurred in a workplace or educational environment.
- In certain cases ‘request exemplars’ have to be obtained from suspects. This means that the suspects have to complete a handwritten exercise, from dictation, under the supervision of the investigator, attorney or forensic document examiner.
- If there are no suspects, then a detailed examination of the physical documents can provide clues as to the origin of the material.
- Offensive graffiti is different from gang tags or street art. If it has occurred in a school environment, there is current research available which sheds light on this phenomenon.
Types of cases involving anonymous handwriting
- Hate mail, death threats, harassment or malicious notes
- Handwritten insertions on contracts
- Ransom notes